Spyker, Miranda and Solid Smoke

Here we have a job lot of three, small but egregious media errors.


There was a piece in the paper on one of those wild sports cars that are either never built or only half a dozen are claimed at around £1Million each.

It is called the Spyker B6 Venator. Designing a car-any car-involves defining the details of engine, suspension, body and chassis, transmission, electronic control and much else besides. That is a massive, engineering task.

Victor Muller claims to be the designer of the Venator. It appears that he started as a lawyer and since has been the owner of several firms ranging from marine salvage to fashion. Not impressive qualifications for a car designer.

That designer claim is probably only as valid as that of a child drawing a car. “It’s got a really big engine …  y’know; lots of small wheels…  er, machine guns at the front and  … a boot full of footballs. Yeah!”

It sounds like an ego-driven dream.


The other day Miranda Krestovnikoff, a zoologist and usually reliable TV presenter, had a piece on learning from other species. How do those little tree frogs cling to a wet leaf? Not only that, they can then stop clinging and off they walk. Marvellous.

Miranda spoke, on The One Show , to Professor Anne Neville, of Leeds University, who told us she is investigating how the little creatures do it. This splendid skill could let a tiny machine that she and her team is designing cling to a surface inside the human body and even move around. Such a device could carry a video camera to show a surgeon using keyhole surgery exactly what she is doing as she works.

Our zoologist called Professor Neville and her team, ‘scientists’.

No, they are ‘engineers’. Professor Anne Neville is a qualified and very senior engineer and is Chair in Tribology and Surface Engineering, School of Mechanical Engineering. Check her out. If this is called a quibble, then The Lad must ask if a zoologist would be embarrassed to confuse a shark and a dolphin.

Engineers design machines and scientists investigate the natural world. Engineers designed the system and created the valves in Miranda’s SCUBA gear and scientists investigated nitrogen in the blood and wrote the diving tables she uses when diving for TV.

Solid smoke

It’s maddening. Engineering is mostly ignored, but then, when it does come up, it is often treated like this. This is an example of Bower Bird syndrome [attraction to shiny baubles]. I am sorry but it was The One Show again. It’s nothing personal; just the limitations of the sad, viewing habits of The Lad.

Advocates claim the name Aerogel for a weird type of stuff. It appeared in an item on unusual materials fronted by Marty Jopson. Marty comes over-as always-with an engaging screen presence and calls himself a ‘Science Bloke’ and started out as a props designer.

Aerogel is a remarkably low density foam hence its nickname of ‘solid smoke’. Marty marvelled over it and gave one of his demonstrations. Now these are normally very enlightening and very interesting. This time, he showed a small block of the foam with a chocolate resting on the top of the block. He lit a blow torch and passed it underneath and played the flame on the bottom of the block for a few seconds. The Lad has to be honest: he did not time it but can assure you that it was, undoubtedly, shown on screen for no longer than 15 seconds. Glass fibre insulations blanket could, probably, perform similarly.

Perhaps you have never heard of the ‘solid smoke’ before? No? The Lad had but is not surprised. He had assumed that it had been invented somewhere around the 1980’s. Looking into it he was surprised to find that its precursor had been invented in the 1930’s – over 80 years ago.

Why have you not heard of it? This engineer will tell you why. It is because it is useless. Now, now Lad, don’t exaggerate: it has been said to have been used in those hotbeds of value-for-money – NASA spacecraft. Many years have passed without a job. It is one of those curious things that are sometimes tagged as a “Solution in search of a problem.” Note that the only organisations making it are universities. The Lad has been unable to find a single commercial organisation offering the stuff for sale.

Next Time

Look at real, valuable engineering innovations instead. One is the OrganOx matra which is the subject of my next two posts. Do not allow yourself to be led by the nose to marvel, uncritically, at space-filling items either journalistic or foam.

The First QE Prize

Start of a new Era?

The Lad said that he would be watching. There were doubts.
The first Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering has now been awarded. This is the First Prize of a million pounds: it is to be the first sight of the resulting ‘broad, sunlit uplands’ where the engineering profession will be recognised and courted and besieged by the ranks of youth who will set it alight in the decades to come.
Certainly they, the winners with the other IT workers, introduced a gigantic category that is not recognised by any of the Nobel Prizes: Berners Lee conceiving the ‘www’ idea; and working on communication protocols were Cerf, Kahn and Pouzin, while Andreessen developed the net browser.

They said:

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering is a global prize recognising and celebrating outstanding advances in engineering that have changed the world.      

…Will reward and celebrate an individual (or up to three individuals)…..

[Prize awarded this time to five individuals.]

 ‘raise the international public profile of engineering and inspire new generations of engineers’.

Yes…. Yes but…

Do the organisers know what real engineering actually is? Is IT actually Engineering; see here and here?

Engineers of every stripe have one thing in common. That is they manage forces in the world for the benefit of mankind. Computer scientists and coders plan structures of ideas and write logical statements to dance in the infinite and malleable cyberspace: they do not engineer anything.

Somehow it seems to be unsurprising to the cynical among those in the engineering profession that the first Prize has been awarded to the IT industry.

OMG. How much profile raising of Information Technology (IT) is needed in this day and age?

All IT is currently very fashionable in the prints and already uber-cool with the young. As the young easily do, they clearly see it as being the be all and end all of the modern world. Real engineering it is that would benefit from it.

Let us look at the judges on the Awards Committee. There were 15 judges. We could use some Venn diagrams to make this clear, but of them;

There is only one Engineer active in the field. One! All praise then, Paul Westbury, the brilliant [and young] designer of several magnificent, real world structures.

Among the 14 others, there are 10 academics.

In the remaining 4 there are 3 individuals working commercially, outside the groves of academe, and they are all in the IT field, i.e. Google, Indian software and Seattle patent brokers.

The other one is a biologist working on evolution applications to, inter alia, energy.

How many of the academics have ever designed or developed or procured an engineered object, e.g. the parts of a machine or structure, to specification, time and price – let alone all of these processes at one time?

What was the contribution of each Judge; did all take equal part?

On the day of the announcement, on18 March 2013, BBC News reported the award of the QE Prize for Engineering. The piece was introduced by the Science Correspondent; there was a stock clip of molten metal being tapped [wearisome]. This was followed by a talking Brian Cox [Rock aura and nice looking]. The Lad has a lot of time for the guy but he is a physicist, not an engineer. Oh! And then a Social Studies Think Tank person intoned that “We need more engineers”.

With such a first award of the Prize, how can The Lad get the organisers to understand and arrange that the media need more proper engineers talking on the telly about real engineering? Details are difficult but principles and artefacts can be photogenic and attractive to the young.

Will the Prize sponsors who dipped into their pockets for the funds recognise this as engineering? Who were engineers on the Prize short list?

Consider all the stakeholders here.

Sponsors vs. Prize Management Panel vs. Prize Judges vs. Nobel Prize vs. youngsters encouraged vs. engineering profession vs. Academia.

Are they anywhere near in the right balance?

There is no evidence from this First Prize that it will even begin to bring any benefit to Engineering.

Current Index

To reach any post use the Link or the template below

http://isambardkingdom.com/?p=[No in P column below]


Post name


P Reference No

Dreamliner and a Nightmare

LiO battery Design problems need solutioneed solution


A change of state for Dyson – back!

Animal design reversion


Entropic disorder at the BBC

Bad model of Second Law


“The Genius of Invention” watched

Review of TV programme at Drax


Why and How: the dip stick dilemmas

Measuring oil level and Ricardo engineering


Nerd who skewered the Heavens

RIP Neil Armstrong, “some nerd..”


Coffee Cups, a Cauldron and Containers

Artistry and Design of Shipping Containers


Automatic Parking on Mars

Design criteria of landing method


Naming Convention 02 – The Answer?

Wilkes, Logician title


What’s the Naming Convention 01?

Schmidt, Google and Engineers in IT


The Go-to People for ship shifting

Engineering vs Celebrity


So! “Schubert Lab”?

Engineering treat as Music on TV/Radio


Follow the Money

Engineering and Commerce


Super Puma down – III

Cleanliness heat treatment


Super Puma down – II

Metallurgy, crack fractography


STOP PRESS – Free Power

New wave-power generator


Super Puma down – I

Epicyclic gears, chip detectors, Memorial


Madeleine trumped by Ruby Loftus

Painting, Apprenticeships, machining


Some machines swim

Underwater vehicle, frozen Planet teaser


Not in the Media

lack of eng media coverage rant


UK enters Swedish Turf

Critical Review of cttee of QE Prize for Engng


A pinch of Chemical Engineering

Carbon Capture/Sequestration review and Chem Eng


Ignorance, quarrels and the feedback loop

Ill-informed commentary on Engng


A step in the long road

Lack of knowledge on what is an engineer


Get it right on Site

JCB and Bucyrus. Elec vs hydraulic


The emergence of Civilisation

The origin of blog footer


The Engineers put the Navigators on track(s)

JCB and Bucyrus. Hydraulic systems


An Engineer’s must-have

Design history of screw threads


Engineering Snapshot Header

Simple Design topics – but what car?


Can you stand the Engineering Heat?

Aircraft Accident – Engineer’s Responsibility for Students


What intrigues us?

Class discussion on engineering topics


“Engineering Connections” on BBC1

Good TV on civil, hydraulic and electrical engineering


The First Law in the Garden Centre

First Law in real life and an engineer’s approach


Stress Testing the new Nuclear Perceptions

Nuclear Power and failure modes


TV’s favourite Physicist comes good

Scientists and Engineers – on TV!


One place that computers go to die

Any old domestic computer emulations?


Don’t come in from the Cold

Life of fridges vs washing machines


Power by the Hour

Proposal for label on appliance cost


The Mighty Hunter felled by the Coalition

Defence Project economics


Don’t take ourselves too seriously

Single Dilbert ‘engineers’ joke


Trussed in the ‘Scientific American’

Title of Eng vs Scientists, Women Engineers


The One Hoss Shay

Verses on Optimum Design


Start the car; slow the wear

Lubrication design


Peterson and the danger at every corner

Stress concentrations, Comet failure and old reference


The eternal question: can you answer for it?

Concorde crash


BP Oil S – Last fragment before Jan 2011pill

BP Oil Spill & fix it myth


Catenary Support Eyesores

HS2 rail chance of improvement


Fingerprints were the Answer?

Corrosion cracking


Making its Mark

Vintage Scribing Block


Screw threads, slots and watches

Engineering efects in daily life


David Blunkett spins off

Politician misusing engineering terms


BP ‘Deepwater Horizon’ Oil Spill Two

Cause of Oil Spill


Quantas A 380 Incident – again

RR statement on cause


Quantas A380 Incident – My rethink

The Lad interpretation


BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill

The cause


Quantas A380 incident

First Thoughts


A startling nugget

Engineering vs Software quote


The Engineer as Rock God

IK Brunel and modern views


Dreamliner and a Nightmare

Who wants to be an engineer?

Boeing 787 Dreamliners are still grounded around the globe in February 2013 after the lithium ion battery problems became very bad in January 2012. Boeing says currently that it expects the aircraft to be back in service in late March or April. Something similar, but on a smaller scale, has happened before with laptops bursting into flames because of their lithium ion batteries.

This is the sort of problem that an engineer can face when any of her creations takes to the sky or arrives in numbers in the big, bad world. It may an aircraft, a car or a washing machine. It is what sometimes comes after the creative struggle of the Design process. Of course she hopes that the problems are not too terrifyingly large.

Now here, though, we have dozens of planes grounded for months and each worth two hundred million dollars [according to the Boeing website]. Nonetheless, dealing with similar things on a smaller scale are part of his job description for any engineer.

What information that seems to have seeped into the public prints is that the Lithium Ion batteries have not been adequately cooled and have taken fire. This is not something that aeronautical engineers want to happen to their babies. The aircraft designers or their colleagues, the Power Electronics Engineers, will be looking to see if some fault external to the batteries was the cause or whether the batteries installation has been designed too close together or whether the cooling systems designed for them are not sufficient.

The Lad is not a battery design expert, but he knows that lithium ion batteries are more like little furnaces rather than the EVEREADY, zinc oxide dry-batteries of his boyhood ‘tin’ torch. We can discover that like a boxer, pound for pound, these batteries are six times better than the standard lead acid battery in a car. This feature is gold dust for plane design engineers. But as a consequence of this, the lithium components are bursting with energy and therefore can get very hot. This, together with the essential [but flammable] solvent, means that a battery if it is hard-driven is continually on the verge of losing control to a runaway reaction and getting either very hot or even bursting into flames.

If it is a battery cooling problem for a modern airliner the solution will not be simple. No one can just say let us move them apart from each other or away from other bits of kit so that then they won’t get so hot. An aircraft may look large roomy and smooth from the outside.

An early DreamLiner at Farnborough Air Show
An early DreamLiner at Farnborough Air Show


In truth, inside there is packed a 3D maze of structure, engines, fuel tanks and cargo…sorry, passengers. Below is a picture that gives an indication of the complexity of the structure even before all the rest of the kit is installed.

An early Production Engineering Test Rig
An early Production Engineering Test Rig


Agreed! It is not a very informative graphic but it is the only one that seems to be available. Remember, that the Dreamliner has much clever engineering to allow the use of vast amounts of non-metallic components in its structure. How they do this is a close Boeing secret and not one they are likely to share with anyone in public anytime soon.

Certainly, the plane will be crammed inside with frames and stringers between which the batteries will be shoe-horned into their position. What is to be done then in these jam-packed spaces? Currently, rumour has it that

“Boeing has proposed insulating the battery’s lithium-ion cells from one another to prevent fire spreading, encasing the battery in a fire-proof shell and installing sensors.
It also proposes a venting mechanism to remove fumes which led to the emergency landing.”

The view of The Lad is that this can only be seen as a ‘workaround’ rather than a definitive solution which should involve arranging for the batteries not to over-heat. We can only await events.

A final thought on those ‘events’ is that, if the experience of The Lad is anything to go by, major problems like this will be astonishingly more complicated than The Lad is able to deduce in this post. The points that he makes above will only be the beginning of the beginning.

Such problems will have a large team entirely devoted to solving them. Such a team will consist of dozens of engineers. There will be design and development engineers, metallurgists, electrical and electronic engineers. As a team, they will be working, certainly, seven days a week and probably 24hrs a day. That’s what engineers do: their best efforts sometimes produce a problem so then they have to race to solve it. All the while that they struggle, massive present and future costs result in cash haemorrhaging straight down the drain – to waste.

Note that, while Boeing may say all will be well by March or April, at least one major customer airline expecting to be without its planes till May. So – that the above Boeing team list does not include the groups of programme guys working at the airlines. They are struggling to arrange replacement flights for passenger already booked to fly in planes are no longer available. The costs of this group and plane hire will undoubtedly land on the Boeing doormat in due course.

It emphasises that the professional engineer must always work with not only the obvious factors of ‘materials’ and the ‘forces’ developed by the machines but also with essential factor of ‘finance’.

How about this thought though. Problems such as this Dreamliner may be exhilarating – provided no one thinks that you were to blame. If you are in charge of the team solving them, The Lad guesses, that it can be satisfying. So! If you are the person who says ‘Bring it on!’ then maybe you are a worthy successor to Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Do you want to be an engineer?

A change of state for Dyson – back!

Sir James Dyson is famous for his engineered products and support for UK engineers and engineering. It is striking that this has come about from his work entirely devoted to domestic appliances. A few years back, The Lad would then have expected that such an engineering reputation would have had to have stemmed from Defence or Aerospace or Power Generation: industries that are awash with finance, opportunities and Research and Development (R&D) departments. Perhaps, alternatively, anywhere in Germany or the US – but we won’t go into that.

The air moving device, called the Air Multiplier by Dyson is one of his latest devices and, typically, it is a remarkable example of thinking laterally. That, together with painstaking development, brings a device to replace and improve the standard domestic fan.

The vacuum cleaner newly bought by The Lad is the DC41 Animal . As part of normal usage and maintenance of the cleaner; the internals brought into view reveal an engineering, tour de force of die cast plastic design.


That vital component of the engineering design process, the material, used by Dyson is presumably that marvel of an engineering plastic – ABS or a more modern derivative.



However the new design cleaner is not without minor glitches. Such glitches though, The Lad emphasises are part of a normal engineering development of even the highest level product. There is also a much more interesting effect that we will come to after a mention of the glitches.

The On/Off power switch has nowhere near the snap action [as in a light switch on the wall] that this user expects. A stab action of the finger frequently leaves the motor still running. That’s one. The other concerns the power flex, or cord. It is longer, which is good, but is not so easy to handle as was the flex of The Lad’s previous Dyson. It does not coil in the hand comfortably. Possibly the insulation elastomer is slightly too stiff in shear or there are inbuilt stresses. Either could lead to torsional coiling problems.

Now we come to the interesting thing.

Think about this. The Animal cleaner is definitely a more elegant engineering design than the products of other companies and also its Dyson predecessors.  Also, the design morphology is different in that the filters are in different locations in the air flow path. Despite this, the design is now back to the starting point. This starting point was a vacuum cleaner with a bag [which is a filter of course] that had to be changed; the dust collection efficiency declining if it was not.

From the user’s point of view; which has to be the engineer’s Gold Standard, things are now much the same as they were. Dyson recommends washing the 2 filters in the Animal every 3 months. Their extraction is as inconvenient as was changing a bag and the washing of the filters and their 24 hr drying time [perhaps longer in winter in the UK] is more inconvenient.

So here we are. This is a vacuum cleaner design that demands that its large filters have a 24 hr maintenance process to avoid loss of efficiency. The clever and elaborate cyclone technology is being overshadowed by the old [paper in one case] filter technology. One of the filters is in the shape of a bag. Sir James had better not let his engineers go any further down this design branch!

Engineering is one of the three drivers advancing the human race. This blog describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world. It is not well served by the current media. An engineer is posting: not a ‘scientist’. Its target is the career seeker and also the general public.


Entropic disorder at the BBC

The second programme in the Genius of Invention series was mainly up to the usual high BBC documentary standard. The Lad returned to it following his review of the first of the series.

Most of his original thoughts this time were, in truth, nit-picking: why the presenters were gurning so much with their continual, strained grins, indeed why were there three presenters at all . On the latter, the producers presumably wanted to avoid the unthinkably, unfashionable, single lecturer. Mostly though here the jump cut effect is mere hyper-activity. As well, there seems no logic in having an “industrial archaeologist” who shows little archaeology but does instruct another presenter on certain simplistic features of a modern jet engine.

Then the Lad realised that something had almost passed him by with only a momentary feeling of something wrong. There was a programme segment on Nicolas Sadi Carnot that sought to discuss the efficiency of steam engines. He went back to review it and was amazed.

Neither of the two presenters involved even mentioned the central point that, in any and all engines, heat must be rejected for them to produce power. That is not difficult to tell. It led to the Second Law of Thermodynamics: probably one of the most important things that humanity has learnt about the operation of the universe. This is what we have to thank Carnot for.

Instead it offered a model engine that was, frankly, laughable. Not because it was solely two lengths of plastic guttering rather than piston and cylinder. That is of no concern. One problem was that it was not even any sort of analogue. Then there were a ridiculous trio of jars each with a different amount of coloured water and given wrong descriptions. It was more like the sleight of hand that is the huckster’s Shell Game.

There was mention of an ‘ideal engine’. There were leaks said to represent energy losses due ‘waste heat’, ‘bearings’, ‘friction’ and ‘noise’. Most of these losses, in the real world, illustrated the First Law of Thermodynamics rather than the phenomenon that was Sadi Carnot’s insight.

The whole segment cast no light on Carnot’s insights; indeed it instructed the viewer wrongly. What was Professor Mark Miodownik thinking about associating himself with this train crash of a presentation?

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is central to the practice of real engineering, but this segment added nothing to the story linking Stephenson and Otto and Benz and Whittle. It should have been left out. Putting it in damaged the credibility of the whole programme.

Engineering is one of the three drivers advancing the human race. This blog describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world. It is not well served by the current media. An engineer is posting: not a ‘scientist’. The Lad is entirely independent of any organisation mentioned. The target of the blog is the career seeker and the general public.



“The Genius of Invention” watched

Here is the return of The Lad after an absence from cyberspace caused by an egregious failure by a new ISP. Let’s not go there; at the moment, at least. It is only a short comment on the first programme in a new series on BBC 1 called ‘The Genius of Invention’.

The first thought on looking at the title, was the familiar hobby-horse of The Lad: it’s not invention or inventors [or scientists – on another day], stupid, it’s engineers. Hold on a moment, though. It is perhaps not necessarily engineers who discover and investigate natural phenomena. It may, and often is, scientists like Faraday or even gifted amateurs who come up with the goods. So, let’s not go down that road this time. Let them have it as a title.

OK, now the programme. Visually and technically it was pretty good. Graphics that The Lad saw of the ideas behind the Newcomen and Watt machines were excellent.

With James [steam condenser] Watt at its centre, this edition promises well for the following three programmes. Each of which has at its centre one of Frank [jet engine] Whittle, Michael [electric power] Faraday and Charles [turbine] Parsons.

Fronting the presentations was Dr [medical not PhD] Michael Mosley. His ‘wingmen’ were Dr Cassie Newland, University of Bristol industrial archaeologist, and finally, thanks to the Gods of TV Commissioning, an engineer. This was Professor Mark Miodownik, engineer, materials scientist and Professor of Materials and Society at UCL. A skewed team; no doubt the producers think it rakish. So: not encouraging.

Moving on, though. At least it was set in a real place, Drax Power Station: currently the biggest coal-fired power station in the UK and providing 7% of the power for the whole of the UK on its own in this one place. It is a place that is both real and important in the everyday world and in engineering terms. Sadly the first real person representing engineers was in overalls. And male. He probably does wear them though for his work as he was the overhaul manager. Notice that. He was not the design engineer or the manufacturer.

The vast size of the building and the scale of the ‘set dressing’ imposed themselves on the viewer. It should give pause for thought for any “small is good” advocates. Consider the magnitude of the task for small scale power generation to replace this place and be a significant solution to power generation in the modern world. That is nearly 4000MW for 24 hrs a day, every day.

The distant views of the presenters talking to their cameraman was a bit gimmicky but at least it gave an idea of the scale of the Drax hardware that surrounded them and are part of the world of the power generating engineer.

The dalliance with a large Drax stop valve lost a bit in translation being as the hardware was lying on its side on the floor. Its height, The Lad guessed, was at least twice that of the human beings, if not more; a striking image that simply did not appear.

Yes, you are right. The Lad is jealous. Oh to be able to direct such forces toward his take on engineering on a prime time, main stream, TV channel.

The next programme is devoted to Speed. It will, one imagines, introduce Frank Whittle at least. Certainly Rolls-Royce will continue with another of its recent starring roles on TV. Money could not buy this advertising exposure.

Why and how: the dip stick dilemmas

The handbook says check the oil with the car on the level. On holiday: everywhere nearby was sloping a little. Sure enough: at each place the level on the dipstick seemed different. His Irritated hunt for somewhere suitable gave The Lad ample time to reflect that the measurement of the amount of oil in an engine seemed remarkably low-tech in this day of high-tech engineering,. It’s like having to use your finger in the dark to find out how much beer is left in the glass.

What does the engineer demand that the oil do in a car internal combustion engine (ICE)? We will come back to that question.

Most other features of the ‘driving experience’ are either electronically governed or satellite mediated and unlikely to be less so any time soon. What is it about the oil? Even that most complex and technically advanced of power plants, the gas turbine aircraft engine, has a sight glass. That is, arguably, less advanced still than the dipstick.

By definition when the engine is running, oil is distributed throughout the engine and there is instrument power enough to measure pump pressure. But pressure does not vary with the amount in the engine. Until it is too late, that is. How are you to discover how close it is to running out? Firstly, the engine designer has to send the oil to one place to give us the chance to measure it. Clearly, it can only be allowed to go to that one place when it hasn’t got anything better to do elsewhere. Only when the engine is stopped can the oil go for its roll-call.

But when the engine is stopped, we cannot afford any significant, power drain from the battery; neither for pumping oil to a tank, nor for a powered measuring instrument. There is only one force to do the jobs. So, gravity it is.

The roll call takes place in one place: that place is in a container at the lowest point where gravity can be relied upon to drive the oil. To save space under the bonnet and give suitable ground clearance, this container will be relatively shallow, probably wider than it is deep. If you have ever tried to carry water in a shallow dish without spillage, you will know how difficult it is. The liquid is very eager to migrate to one end or to the other.

As an aside, it is worth showing how some things are important over a wide range of engineering affairs. In another part of the engineering forest, this liquid behaviour, called the ‘free surface effect’ is also very important to naval architects who are designers of ships. For them, in tanker ships and ferries the free surface effect is not just an inconvenience: its management is a matter of life and death. In 1987, 188 people died and many more were injured in the Herald of Free Enterprise when it capsized in less than 4 minutes after sea water entered an undivided, vehicle deck.

The engines that power most cars and trucks on the road are reciprocating ICE engines; that is those with cylinders with pistons in them. The Lad has never been involved in their design. However, as an engineer, it became clear to him that this eagerness to migrate to the ends of its container is central to the dipstick problem. It is this that means that the dipstick level is different when a car is on the level or on a slope.

Is there a position then that means the variation with any slope is small or, at least, as small as possible? Yes there is. The Lad set up a toy demonstration of this effect. Below is shown a container with three [not very clear] red marks at the liquid surface. First, the surrogate tank is level and each red mark is at the liquid level.

Level tank overall
Model Oil Tank on the level

 The views expressed in this post are not necessarily those of Kempe’s Engineers Year-Book. No engineering book was harmed in this demonstration.

Now if we tilt the ‘tank’ down at the left as if the ‘car’ was on a slope, what do we see? The liquid level rises above its left hand mark and sinks below its right hand mark. Not surprising.

Down at the left

The next image shows the effect more clearly.

Down at the left enlarged

Now, tilting the ‘tank’ down to the right; the level on the left falls below its mark.

Down to the Right.

The point that we are making here is that levels measured close to either end of a tilted tank vary significantly. These images show [although far from Wallace and Gromit standards] within their limits, one important effect. There is one place to measure where the tilt has no effect. It is half way between the tank ends.

So: we see that breaking the liquid surface midway between the oil sump sides is the best place to site the dip stick. Then any slope will have no effect on the measurement.

Clever, eh? So, there we have it. The student interview syndicate answer! Right!


Here is the dilemma. How do we make it accurate in a real engine? The dipstick cannot go anywhere you like. It has to take account of the engine structure for one thing. The pistons and cylinders and valve camshafts tend to get in the way; not forgetting all the rest of the components, large and small, that pack the engine compartment these days.

Now The Lad is not an ICE specialist and the above is naive perhaps or too simple. So who would know?

The UK company, Ricardo is one of the foremost specialist ICE designers. They have been engine designers for nearly 100 years, working on a very large number of projects, Their market has included defence, motor sport and marine. They worked as part of teams with General Motors and Chrysler of the US to design a class-leading V6 engine capable of global implementation for GM and, for Chrysler, the Dodge Viper engine upgraded to 8.4 litres and a massive 600 horsepower for the ultimate muscular American sports car.

Ricardo engineers work on driveline and transmission system engineering. There have been cost-optimized manual transmissions for developing markets and advanced and high performance systems such as the dual clutch transmission of the Bugatti Veyron.

In short, they are proper engine designers; not ICE dilettantes like The Lad.

A Ricardo engineer put it this way. The dip-stick provides a rough estimation of oil levels in the sump but it’s not necessary that this is wildly accurate. We can tolerate the effects of slight changes in pitch/roll of the engine in comparison to the acceptable level between maximum and minimum recommended fill which is very large. In practice the dip stick is usually placed mid-way along the engine but again, this isn’t particularly critical provided that oil level is being checked on reasonably level ground (as specified by almost all manufacturers).

During the engine design, as the Ricardo engineer put it, the design engineer knows that it is essential that he or she ensures that there is enough oil capacity and enough oil circulating to maintain sufficient cooling to avoid overheating the bearings. These days, oil coolers are also commonly used for this purpose, especially in hot climates or where the vehicle is working under extreme loads (e.g. towing in mountainous areas).

During engine operation, the crucial consideration is that there is oil at an acceptable temperature available at the pump intake when the engine is operating – this will typically be drawn from around the lowest point on the circuit. On the other hand significant over-filling should be avoided as this only causes wasteful churning and possibly some oil reaching the combustion chamber. The quantity of oil specified for a given engine is not an exact science but a compromise based on the above comments – usually erring on the conservative side.

There, now, you really do have it!

The engineer’s emphasis was that these are the key points in the mind of the ICE designer; not agonising over the height to a mm of the oil surface. Good ideas, even clever ideas, are not enough. Engineering for the designer is to have, backing her up, real experience of the components in the gritty world. The engineer is always pragmatic at heart and the real-life solutions are usually complicated and not always tidy. Engineering teams, like Ricardo and others like them at the top of their game, have this experience. If you want to be an engineer, seek them out.

If you are really in difficulty finding a level surface, there is an approximate solution. Check the dip stick with the car facing one sloping way, then turn the car till it is facing in precisely the opposite direction and note the dip stick again. Half way between the highest and the lowest is a good reading.

You would be right but only partly so if you said the job of the oil is to lubricate bearing surfaces. An equally important task is the cooling of the core components of the engine that external coolant flow cannot reach.

Engineering is one of the three drivers advancing the human race. This blog describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world. It is not well served by the current media. An engineer is posting: not a ‘scientist’. The Lad is entirely independent of any organisation mentioned. The target of the blog is the career seeker and the general public.

‘Nerd’ who skewered the Heavens

Neil Armstrong died on the 25 August 2012 aged 82. He had been the first human being to set foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969. NASA paid tribute here. He had earned an aeronautical engineering degree from Purdue University and a master’s in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California. He flew as a fighter pilot for the US Navy from 1949 to 1952 and during the Korean War he flew 78 combat missions.

Early in the Second World War, the then UK Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill famously said this.

“When I warned them[the French Government about a year earlier]that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did, their generals told their Prime Minister and his divided cabinet, ‘In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.’ Some chicken! Some neck!’ “ 

Armstrong was widely quoted in the many obituaries as calling himself just “a nerdy engineer”. Some nerd! Some engineer!

Armstrong and X15
Armstrong was a test pilot for the Rocket X 15.

Nerds spend their time focussed on some obscure object of their affections, frequently no further than their computer monitor, tablet screen or smart phone. Armstrong though, before the Moon, had been not just an engineer but a test pilot for the X 15 plane at the boundaries of Space. How about that? Most engineers can, and do, only dream of that career. Then he went one better: no, it must be ten better! In this case, it was rocket science. To the Moon.

Armstrong on the Moon
The only good photo of Armstrong on the Moon surface. All other photos were of Buzz Aldrin taken by Armstrong.

Nine months after the first Moon landing in April 1970, Apollo 13 had an explosion when it was half way between the Earth and the Moon. Then the wisdom of the choice of each crew member to be a combination of sharp intellect and engineer paid off. The crew returned to Earth safely. Perhaps rather than ‘safely’, that ought to be ‘successfully’: such a gigantically risky voyage, and indeed the preceding first Moon landing itself, can hardly be called safe. Courage there was yes, by the tonne, but also engineering technology as automatic reflex.

The ‘nerd’ quote, according to some, also referred to him being “white socks wearing”. Here, The Lad is reduced to incomprehension of this Americanism. How can this become connected to ‘nerdishness’? Answer comes there none.

RIP Neil Armstrong, 1930 – 2012

Engineering is one of the three drivers advancing the human race. This blog describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world. It is not well served by the current media. An engineer is posting: not a ‘scientist’. Its target is the career seeker and also the general public.


Coffee Cups, a Cauldron and Containers

Gavin Turk told  a newspaper [sadly, behind a pay wall] about a day in his life. He was one of the original Young British Artists and is a busy man employing several people. We learned about some of his past work. There were the 1000, signed sheets of paper each just marked with a ring from a cup of tea. Then there were the bronze casts of bite-marked, polystyrene cups painted to look real. He also took a single bite out of lots of Rich Tea biscuits (because, he said, of his interest in ideas about identity and how he could manipulate his image and name) signed each one and then sold them for £25 each.

The Lad looked up at the very moment after reading this piece. A shipping container on a lorry passed by the window.

Arbitrary Container
Engineers designed Containers like this one.

The conception, design and value of the container were different to Turk’s works. The concept and design of the container has transformed international commerce. That transformation, without exaggeration, is equal to the change from the stagecoach to the High Speed Train. That has changed the World. If you want to discover more about how it happened there is a very readable book. It is called “The Box. How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger”. It is a marvellous story of how Containers did for shipping what computing did for engineering. Astonishingly there are no illustrations at all and only one simple graphic in the book and that is a line diagram on the title page.

One of the pleasures of the engineer’s tasks is the justified satisfaction in plucking out of her mind a design to do something and turning into a new object. True, the engineer is kin to the artist in that most artists also have a similar satisfaction in a task well done; that is of making something in their case mostly to give pleasure to the onlooker or to achieve a particular effect in their mind. It must be emphasised that there are occasions though when high artistry is vital. Even when it is not vital, it can still, combined with the right product or structure, add immeasurably to its quality. Few engineers can provide both qualities.

For the later, take the Olympic cauldron for London 2012 Games designed by Thomas Heatherwick. The concept needed an artistic intelligence of the highest order. It got it. Superb: there is no other word for it. First the artistic vision of many, separate petals: one for each of the countries taking part. Then the vision brought them together to become one cauldron. The engineering design then kicked in. It had to design the burners to produce the right flame picture; the fitting of the petals and the gas supply: the mechanism to raise them elegantly in synchrony into the air; to stand rigidly together in the stadium environment. A magnificent, dramatic blend of art and design.

Then there was the container that passed The Lad. Such ubiquity in modern life! Yet there is good engineering in this. You may argue that there is no artistry in the design of the shipping container. Even if you argue that fitness for purpose or form following function cannot be classed as such there is certainly intense creativity in its design. Then there are engineering drawings which have no artistic flourishes and are stripped down to the barest essentials to define any component or assembly of components. Nonetheless as an engineer The Lad finds in it, not surprisingly perhaps, a spare beauty. This is the General Assembly of a Shipping Container.

Standard Container example
An engineering assignment. "Design a Container"


One website sketched it as

  • 20′ ISO shipping container, new
  • All listed shipping container types have a double door on one end which can be opened completely.
  • Walls made of corrugated steel sheets, profiled steel frames, wooden floor on steel cross members
  • certified by Germanischer Lloyd
  • steel plates made of Corten steel (anti corrosive)
  • forged and galvanised door locking bars

There is a Technical Specification here

The heart of the design, however in the view of The Lad, lies with the corner fittings. They are not complex: they could even be called magnificently simple. They are the components that allow each container to be picked up and also to be firmly attached to the transporter or another container above or below itself. This is a drawing of one .

The heart and core of the Container's design

Not all clever pieces of engineering are complicated. Some are quite simple. You will see that there are a number of holes or piercings in the corner fitting which are not circular. Each corner fitting is multiply connected as the mathematicians would put it. That combined with their need for some reliable strength makes their manufacture worth considerable thought. How would you make them? Machine them from solid? Or forge them? Stamp them? Weld them?

There is a good video talking of corner fitting features here by Tandemloc.

There is a hair-raising video showing the problems that the engineer seeks to design against here. Such a problem though is one of the invariants in any engineering design. Engineers load up a piece of the real world and any failures will have real consequences. Some of those consequences will be serious. Uncontrolled release of forces in the real world can have explosive effects; leading them to exert large effects somewhere undesirable – usually nearby. Such a risk is the shadow under which the professional engineer labours: it is for what she or he is paid. Every person in the world every hour of the day has to trust that they are successful.

Note that container corner fittings are actually cast and the cast components are then welded into the Container structure. Consider why this is so.

By the way, apparently, the Gavin Turk, Rich Tea biscuits are now priced at £108 on the Turk website. He does have insight about this though by saying that people would wonder why they should pay. The Turk response though clears that up because that’s what “I liked about it.” No doubt.

Does Gavin Turk find fulfilment in his daily work? Is he delighted (or at least, at the end of the day, reasonably satisfied) with having achieved something? More likely, he is punching the air at having discovered how gullible some people are. He must be having a larff (all the way to the bank).


Engineering is one of the three drivers advancing the human race. This blog describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world. It is not well served by the current media. An engineer is posting: not a ‘scientist’. Its target is the career seeker and also the general public.